I received some e-mails asking about my reference to the Aristotlean-Medieval “Great Chain of Being” theory in the recent post. The following is a summary of the class notes I prepared for an introductory lecture in my American History class.
The concept of a Great Chain of Being was derived from Aristotle’s Historia Animalia, which was his attempt to develop a taxonomy for living beings, animals in particular. This idea of classification was extended to the universe by later thinkers, into a sort of earlier day “theory of everything.” Nowadays the quest for a theory of everything is often a topic for reporting and discussion. Present day theoretical physicists are striving, so far without success, to discover the basis for an explanation that will describe the way the universe works. Einstein’s relativity and the quantum theory seem to be at odds with each other in a manner that has yet to be reconciled. Some quests transcend time and place, it seems.
The GCB (no relation to the fifth-rate TV show that appear this spring) theory was sometimes termed the “Ladder of Nature” (scala naturae), but is was decidedly not a ladder or stairway that beings could move up or down on. Everything had its place, which was immutable.
Chain of Being
God was at the top of the GCB, and rocks were at the bottom in a hierarchical continuum. Humans occupied the space on the continuum between the wholly spiritual (angels and demons) and wholly physical worlds. Within their category, humans had their own hierarchy. For example the king was God’s lieutenant on earth, at least in his own kingdom. Below the king were the nobility or aristocracy, commoners of various ranks, and serfs and slaves. Everyone was born into his place, and stayed there. Moving up and down was not possible, and to attempt to do so was a crime and a sin.
Obviously, such a mind set had great benefit for those in power. It was a wonderful way to keep the hoi polloi in line. Try to change your station in life and you are punished by death; since you have committed a serious sin by attempting to interfere with God’s order, you go to hell for eternity. And the journey is not at all pleasant, to wit:
Auto de fe of a heretic
This idea began to come apart in the West with the Renaissance and Reformation in the 15th and 16th Centuries and received its greatest impetus in the Enlightenment of 17th and 18th Centuries. The United States of America became the Nation of the Enlightenment, its founding document for the first time ever declaring that all men are created equal, and possess certain unalienable rights. That Declaration established an intellectual basis for the rights of individuals being superior to any so-called rights of the collective.
Obviously, the ideal did not immediately become reality. More than three millennia of tradition and established institutions did not roll over and play dead. The rest of the world, furthermore, was steeped in the same ideological mind set, and for the most part, it still is. Breaking the GCB is an ongoing task and it not yet completed. One reason may be that history is a chronicle of people who are mostly lazy, scared, and greedy. Such people can take comfort in a system where everyone has a place.
Notes: The “Nation of the Enlightenment” was coined by Leonard Peikoff in his the Ominous Parallels (1982). “Lazy, scared, and greedy” people is Ian Morris’s description in Why the West Rules; For Now (2010). For those interested, a readable, more detailed narrative of the GCB (as it applies to the subject matter of their book) is contained in the first chapter of Robert Bucholz and Newton Key’s Early Modern England (Blackwell Publishing 2004), pp. 22 – 30.